I can’t cook.
It’s not my fault.
Growing up in the Keizer household, our meals typically revolved around three dishes: cheeseburgers, hotdogs and steak. Summers, we’d mix things up a bit with BBQ chicken and brats. And for those really special occasions? Takeout. We loved us some beef chop suey, sausage pizza and Italian beef sandwiches. That’s how we roll in the Midwest.
Okay, so two things. First, the main common denominator among all these meals? Meat. Consider it the sun in a Chicagoan’s cuisine universe. All other foods orbit it. FYI – the day I drove into California, I became a vegetarian. (Made sense to me as California is in a galaxy far, far away.) Second, our family has always been a staunch supporter of “ready to inhale” foods. Aside from our favorite Chinese place, pizza place and Italian beef place, our dessert of choice was anything in an Entenmann’s box. No fuss, no muss. By the time I left for college, my entire cooking repertoire consisted of making a mean pot of Rice-A-Roni.
For many years, I wasn’t bothered by this pathetic lack of kitchen skills. I was perfectly happy with Top Ramen noodles and Chef Boyardee. As long as I had my trusty microwave, all was right in the world. My microwave has always been my most prized possession with radiation capabilities. I’ve used him (yes, it’s a him) for everything from boiling water to warming up a very tasty Hot Pocket. (There’s not a lot in between, I know.)
And I loved telling people, “I don’t cook at all!” I considered it a huge waste of time and money. Why buy every single ingredient you need for every single meal when Marie Callender, Mrs. Paul and Sara Lee have already made it for you? Just visit them in the freezer section, and you’re good to go. Then spend that time and money on something worthwhile like watching reruns of Family Feud or adding to your burgeoning PEZ collection.
My cooking strike lasted for years, yet as time went on I realized that my self-proclaimed lack of interest was hiding a deep, dark secret: my fear of anything in a Williams-Sonoma catalogue. Cheese graters? Salad spinners? Vegetable peelers? What the hell were these things? Weren’t they really the modern day equivalents of medieval torture devices? I was scared. Yet throughout college and grad school, this phobia was easy enough to hide. I had some pretty fabulous roommates who loved to cook, so I just pretended to graciously allow them sole use of the kitchen as if I was Al Gore conceding the presidency.
Alas, soon enough I was living on my own again and a new obstacle presented itself: the ubiquitous potluck. Granted, potlucks make perfect sense, especially in LA. Considering that you can wipe out an entire week’s salary in one night at Spago’s (clueless if this is still a “happening” restaurant… or if people are still saying “happening”), you simply cannot go out to eat for every occasion. Therefore – BBQs, birthdays, Thanksgiving – you name it, there was a potluck for it. The performance anxiety was crippling. I couldn’t bring something I had bought at the store or nuked in the microwave. Those times I did, I sensed a palpable contempt aimed in my direction. Apparently a Vons cake does not show that you care enough to send the very best. But if only anyone knew my embarrassing predicament, they would appreciate my effort to bring something edible to the festivities.
How could I even compare? I was the cooking equivalent of the Yugo. Meanwhile, my friends were showing up with impressive concoctions that I could only gawk at with shame and envy. Just last month, my friends threw me a birthday dinner. The main course? Lasagna from scratch. Meat and vegetarian. While one part of me was enjoying the evening with those I love most, the other was internally lamenting that I could never do the same for them. I then drowned my sorrows in a piece of homemade apple pie.
But I’m slowly beginning to confront my fears. Now I can make a pie, too… A no bake pie. Don’t laugh. It requires pudding, which I’m able to make from scratch, thank you very much. I’ve even made a few batches of cupcakes that have gone over pretty well. And my potato salad was a hit at the last backyard BBQ. Not to say this will one day turn into a cooking blog. Last week I made penne pasta with vodka cream sauce – also from scratch! – for dinner. It tasted like… nothing. I forgot salt. My friend was very sweet about it, but I think next time we’ll just order in. I know this great Chinese place.